Paul Kengor is a professor of political science at Grove City College and the author of God and Ronald Reagan (HarperCollins).
TWO YEARS AGO RONALD REAGAN passed John Adams and Herbert Hoover to become the country's longest-living president. On Feb. 6 he was in line to extend that record, hitting his 93rd birthday. Observers (except for those blinded by leftist ideologies) can't miss the 40th president's achievements—the economic growth, the Cold War victory, the summits and treaties. They also are writing about his relationship with his wife, his love of liberty, his image of America as a Shining City Upon a Hill.
Yet, if the past is a barometer, what was closest to Mr. Reagan's heart throughout his life is being mentioned only rarely—his faith in God. Ronald Reagan's Christian faith has been the single most consistent, dominant feature of his life. The peak periods of Mr. Reagan's faith were the bookends of his life—his adolescence in Dixon and his mature years as president and former president of the United States. As president, his faith spiked up after the March 1981 assassination attempt.
The early origins of Reagan's faith forged the religious convictions he maintained throughout his public life. These spiritual influences began in the Reagan household, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. His father Jack was a shoe salesman who took a new job at every turn and moved his family from Illinois town to Illinois town.
One move, though, had an unplanned outcome: Wrestling with the loneliness of a little boy who had just moved to a third new town, 5-year-old Ronald ventured alone to the attic of his new home. The previous tenant had left behind a large collection of bird's eggs and butterflies enclosed in glass. Ronald escaped into the attic for hours at a time, "marveling at the rich colors of the eggs and the intricate and fragile wings of the butterflies." "The experience," he remembered, "left me with a reverence for the handiwork of God that never left me."
Eventually the Reagans settled in Dixon in 1920, and it was Dixon that made Ronald Reagan. The town provided a host of inspirations, the most important of which were spiritual—individuals like Rev. Ben Cleaver, Rev. H.G. Waggoner and his son John Waggoner, and Ronald's Sunday school teacher Lloyd "Brownie" Emmert. These other influences comprised what Mr. Reagan later aptly called his "inheritance." Surrounded by devout members of the Disciples of Christ denomination, he experienced "a small universe where I learned standards and values that would guide me for the rest of my life," as he later wrote.
The span of that life included the entire rise and fall of the Soviet Union. Ronald was 6 years old when the Bolshevik revolution hatched in October 1917. Sixty-four years later Mr. Reagan was president, leading a crusade against Soviet communism partly motivated by his belief that as a Christian he was "enjoined by Scripture" to resist and attack evil. "There is sin and evil in the world," Mr. Reagan said in his March 8, 1983, "Evil Empire" speech, "and we're enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might." A year later he told a Joint Session of the Irish National Parliament that the "struggle between freedom and totalitarianism today" was ultimately not a test of arms or missiles but a "spiritual struggle." As the Soviets themselves recognized in a formal statement from TASS, the official Soviet news agency, "President Reagan uses religion with particular zeal to back his anti-Soviet policy."
Mr. Reagan took his stand in the 1940s, when the Cold War was just beginning, and Mr. Reagan was a popular after-dinner speaker in Hollywood. In his talks, Mr. Reagan received raucous applause when he spoke sharply against fascism, the totalitarian monster of the recent past. After one such speech to the men's club at the Beverly Christian Church, the Disciples denomination where he worshiped, Rev. Cleveland Kleihauer told him that denouncing fascism was good, but he should also speak about a new threat: "I think your speech would be even better if you also mentioned that if communism ever looked like a threat, you'd be just as opposed to it as you are to fascism."
Mr. Reagan told his minister that he hadn't given much thought to the threat of communism. Nonetheless, he agreed it was good advice. From now on, he would declare that if a day came when it looked as though communism posed a threat, he would denounce it just as vigorously. When he did, however, his left-wing audiences suddenly grew disapprovingly quiet. Over five decades later, he thanked that minister for the "wake-up" call. Mr. Reagan's assault on communism began at that moment, when a man of God, in a house of God, prompted him.
But Mr. Reagan's faith shaped his domestic policies as well. The arenas in which he drew on his religious beliefs to shape his policy preferences as president are legion. On education, he pitched prayer in public schools every chance he could, and in a March 1987 letter to a friend, he complained of the secularized manner in which sex education was taught in public schools. It is taught, he wrote, "in a framework of only being a physical act—like eating a ham sandwich. The educators are fearful that any references to sin or morality will be viewed as violating the separation of church and state."
Abortion was another issue he found inseparable from biblical precepts. In a January 1984 speech to religious broadcasters, he said: "God's most blessed gift to his family is the gift of life. He sent us the Prince of Peace as a babe in the manger." In his 1986 State of the Union address, he lamented "a wound in our national conscience," saying that "America will never be whole as long as the right to life granted by our Creator is denied to the unborn."
While Mr. Reagan could lead the way toward defeating an evil called the Soviet empire and advance the fight against an evil called abortion, he cannot vanquish an evil called Alzheimer's. Yet Mr. Reagan might have found a comforting answer even for the cruel death that will conquer him. The answer is in a poem he penned as a 17-year-old, titled simply "Life":
[W]hy does sorrow drench us
When our fellow passes on?
He's just exchanged life's dreary dirge
For an eternal life of song.
What ... makes us weep at the journey's end,
Weep when we reach the door
That opens to let us in
And brings to us eternal peace
As it closes again on sin.
The adult Reagan never buried that eternal hope. He told friends and loved ones that death was merely a window to something better. Some six decades after he wrote this poem, he and Nancy were returning to the White House from the funeral of the first lady's mother in Phoenix. As they flew aboard Air Force One, a speechwriter asked him how Mrs. Reagan was holding up. The president noted that she was quite upset. To console her, he said: "I just told Nancy that the Lord closed the door to this life and opened the door to a new life, and had her mother join Him."
Mr. Reagan wrote of his own mother's death the same way. In a November 1962 letter, he said of her recent demise, "in a way it was for the best." He believed that bad times were a precursor to brighter skies. Mr. Reagan wrote often that grief led to good, and he might apply that thinking even to his own death—a mere transition to something better; a step through that eternal window. It likewise will be part of God's plan—the denouement. And God always knows best, Mr. Reagan always said.
Copyright © World 2004. Used by permission.